One day in 1995 Peter Robinson, the Toronto mystery writer, was visiting Yorkshire, his old home. That summer a terrible drought dried up a reservoir near the town of Oatley, revealing at its bottom a village that had been drowned when the reservoir was created decades earlier. Many thoughts might be stimulated by this experience, but the idea that occurred to Robinson was purely professional: "What a wonderful place to find a body!"
When he set out to develop that notion, he populated the village with people who lived there during the Second World War. He got the story going in the summer of severe drought with a boy exploring the revealed village. He climbs on top of a rotted building, falls through and sees deadly chunks of the roof falling toward him, missing him by inches. His hand sinks into the earth and curls around the fingers of a skeleton, a young woman who was murdered here in the 1940s.
As usual, Robinson began with only a vague idea of where he was going. His plots are delightfully complex, but he doesn't work from an outline. He starts with the glimmer of an idea, and sometimes he's three-quarters through before he knows whodunnit. That would terrify many writers, but for him it's natural.
Eventually, all becomes clear. "Then I go back and plant some clues," he remarked when I talked to him last week. These aren't usually physical clues; they're hints of motive. In crime fiction, physical clues are now analyzed by forensic technicians and computer people rather than detectives. The body found by the boy became the centre of In a Dry Season (1999), a superb mystery that is Robinson's longest book so far, as well as his most complicated, with a 1940s narrative and a 1990s narrative proceeding together. It's also his most audacious: Much of it is told by a mysterious woman, herself a crime writer.
Many readers consider it his best -- no small compliment. Since his police procedurals began appearing in 1987, he's become known as a writer of mysteries that are traditional in tone but often surprising in shape. He's now read in Japanese, German, French, Portuguese and Swedish. This month brought him a remarkable honour: His 1997 book, Dead Right (titled Blood at the Root in the United States), was named in 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century, published by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. It's the only Canadian title on a list that begins with Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and ends with Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height (1998).
In Dead Right, Chief Detective Inspector Alan Banks of the Eastvale police solves what appears to be a simple racist killing but turns out (no surprise for Robinson fans) to be much more intricate. Banks is at the core of 11 Robinson books, the latest of which, Cold Is the Grave, appeared in October. Robinson is currently fine-tuning the 12th, Aftermath, about a couple something like Homolka and Bernardo, for publication next fall.
Banks, we learn as we read the series, was a good detective in London but felt burnt out and sought a quieter life in Eastvale, a fictional market town not far from Leeds. As any reader of detective stories could have warned him, some of the most Byzantine crimes of modern history apparently take place in sleepy places like Eastvale, and Banks has to deal with all of them. But whether in London or Eastvale, he's one of those decent men trying to manage professionally in an indecent world. He has domestic trouble as well; he can't see why his wife feels neglected just because he's seldom home. Women in general baffle him, though he likes them. In this he reminds me of Eric Wright's Toronto detective, Inspector Charlie Salter. Robinson acknowledges there might be some influence because he's an admirer of Wright.
Banks likes a pint of bitter at the pub and, at the end of a tough day, a drop of Laphroaig single malt. He likes Indian food ("The food came -- bali prawns for Craig and lamb korma for Banks, along with pilau rice, mango chutney and naans"). Music is crucial to him, and the CDs he plays in his car or his house demonstrate an eclectic taste. He's a jazz fan, but not bigoted against pop stars; he's as likely to put on Jimi Hendrix as Bill Evans. He favours the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Puccini sung by Kiri Te Kanawa, and Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. The music he chooses conveys Banks's mood or comments on the action.
In one book, Banks made a visit to Canada, and Robinson has written short stories set in Toronto, but he locates most of his mysteries in Yorkshire. He finds it best to deal with his setting at a distance, perhaps bringing to it an objectivity that would be harder to manage if he were writing about the Beach district of Toronto, where he lives. He flavours the books with Yorkshire dialect, inserting occasionally one of those bizarre double-verbed sentences: "She's a bit weird and wild, is Emily." Then there's the double-negative Yorkshire Baroque: "He never was big time, wasn't Charlie." At one point someone actually says, "There's nowt queer as folk," an ancient Yorkshire way of saying people do the damnedest things. (Currently it provides the title for a TV series about gays, Queer as Folk.)
Robinson grew up in Leeds (he was born near there in 1950) and came to Canada to study with Joyce Carol Oates, who was then teaching at the University of Windsor. She encouraged him: "She could make you feel what you were doing was valid." He was a poet then, and when he did his PhD at York University he wrote his dissertation on modern English poetry. But he was also discovering an affection for storytelling and reading crime novels. Raymond Chandler showed him how well written crime novels could be; Georges Simenon demonstrated how much atmosphere they could contain. So as he wrote his doctoral thesis, he experimented with crime fiction. He wrote a few books that never got published, but one day Chief Detective Inspector Alan Banks swam into his imagination. Ever since, Robinson and Banks have been working their way into the history of detective fiction.